There are many potential online community software options out there that might be applicable to your needs. So how do you choose the correct one? Here are the steps your organization likely should follow to arrive at a decision.
Step 1: Take a broad look at the market
Reading this entire blog series will provide you with plenty of potential online community uses, software features, and software products to consider. It might also help you to consider if what you really need is a product from another software category (see the above “software products” link, and scroll down)—having some community features but with something else (learning management, for example) as the primary product focus.
Step 2: Define your expected outcomes
Now that you’ve got a good sense of what a nonprofit online community can do for you… What do you really want to accomplish? What outcomes do you hope to produce? Clearly defining those outcomes will help to determine your approach to software selection.
Step 3: Define your requirements
Even though we’ve provided you with a list of core online community software features, try not to express your requirements in terms of system functions, but rather in terms of what you want users to be able to do and accomplish.
Step 4: Conduct an RFI/RFP process
Create a very straightforward and simply worded request for information (RFI) or request for proposal (RFP) and circulate it to your top 5-7 software providers. Give them 4-6 weeks to make a response. Include opportunities for dialogue with the providers so they can ask clarifying questions. Ask the providers what they think will be your organization’s own level of effort, both in the short and long term, to make the community a success.
Step 5: Software demos
Request that the top candidates (the 2-3 finalists) provide a “scripted demo.” A scripted demo is based on your specific needs, rather than just a generic presentation given to any potential customer. This gives you an opportunity to learn how well each provider understands your specific needs and translates those into product functionality.
Step 6: Compare solutions and their providers
Ideally, you’ll have conducted the RFI/RFP process in such a way that you will be able to make an apples-to-apples comparison across all the software options. You will likely need to have some back and forth with the vendors to try to further understand their responses and to get the information they provide into a format that allows you to perform a good side-by-side comparison.
Step 7: Make a cost/benefit judgement
The range of technology available also has a potentially spectacular range of costs, with licensing and implementation costs each ranging from free to potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars. What you pay depends on your needs, the size of your community, and your budget. You’ll want to evaluate both what the software provides and how well the provider (or service partner) will use the software to meet your objectives.
For many organizations, selecting online community software represents a long-term commitment. At a minimum, you will need to think about both initial and ongoing licensing costs, initial implementation costs and ongoing services/support, and the internal costs (staff time) of building and maintaining the community. Typically, you’ll want to project costs over a three-year time span.
Step 8: Make a selection (or don’t)
Ideally, by the time you finish the above steps, you will have arrived at a decision about which software solution is best for you. But if you haven’t, here are a few words of advice.
First, don’t feel obligated to make a selection if you aren’t feeling comfortable or if there isn’t a good level of consensus from internal stakeholders. That likely means your organization isn’t ready to capitalize on an investment in this area.
Second, just because you have trouble choosing between two options that seem similar doesn’t necessarily mean that you lack the judgment to make the right decision. You may simply have two competitive products with comparable feature sets and attractive providers. Try to avoid paralysis by analysis—you may be in a situation where you simply can’t make a wrong choice between two attractive options.
In this blog post, we assume that your situation requires a robust selection process. Each selection process looks somewhat different. If you aren’t sure what you need for your selection process, start a conversation with Build and we’ll help you figure it out. We’ll let you know what type of process you should go through and whether you can do it unassisted based on your team’s availability and experience.
What happens if your team feels stuck at some point in the process? You can contact Build or another independent, qualified consultant to validate your process and facilitate a decision among your internal team.
There are many reasons why selection processes can hit rough patches. Maybe you need to alter the composition of your selection team, perhaps your objectives or requirements weren’t clear, perhaps you confused one or more vendors at some point in the process, or perhaps you just need someone to translate some of the vendor “techno speak” into more absorbable language. Whatever the reason, you can get the help you need.
Beyond the purchase: achieving success
Simply selecting a good online community software product doesn’t guarantee success. There is so much more to do! Learn how to be successful with your nonprofit’s online community.
Jumping in at the middle? See the introductory post for this series: “Driving Nonprofit Impact Through Online Communities”
Need More Expertise?
Are you looking for an assessment and roadmap to ensure your organization is considering your business needs to software investments with long-term strategic value? Or perhaps you’re ready to have a conversation about a software selection process? Learn more about our Nonprofit Digital Engagement Software solutions here. Whatever your nonprofit technology consulting needs, Build is here to help.